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How to replace small talk when working remotely

Just because you might be working remotely doesn’t mean that casual conversations are no longer important.

How to replace small talk when working remotely
[Photo: Jan Meeus/Unsplash]

Those casual conversations in the break room about weekend plans or the latest Netflix series may seem inconsequential to business, but they’re how employees stay connected and build good working relationships.

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“People prefer to work with people they like,” says Richard Fox, founder of The Learning Corporation and author of forthcoming book Making Relationships Work at Work: A Toolkit for Getting More Done with Less Stress. “Small talk is the first thing to master when building and maintaining rapport with colleagues and clients.”

When we’re all working from home, however, it’s not possible to bump into someone and engage in a quick chat. But this sort of small talk is still essential. You can re-create the rapport-building conversation with colleagues in a few different ways:

1. Set up a virtual watercolor

Many teams already use platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack for collaboration and project management. Fox recommends setting up an informal room or page where coworkers can share non-work-related posts, photos, and memes.

“People persons in the team will use other ways to continue chitchatting, by FaceTime, text messages, and the old-fashioned email,” he adds.

By keeping a separate space for informal conversations, team members who want to keep their heads down working can do that without being distracted, says Fox.

At Teamwork, a project management platform, employees have social-specific chat channels for recipe sharing or fitness. And the team book club still meets, using videoconferencing technology.

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“Spaces need to be created where employees can continue to express themselves and bond about common interests on a human level outside of the work hustle,” says CEO Peter Coppinger.

2. Take time during team videoconferencing

When teams are in an office setting, meetings are often business-only sessions. Since these meetings are now done via videoconferencing, make sure to reserve some time upfront to let coworkers chat.

“Some individuals feel isolated from their colleagues and videoconferencing is particularly important to enable them to see and really reconnect with their friends,” says Fox. “This gives them a load of reassurance.”

Give people leeway at first, he suggests. “Nudge them along with ‘How are you getting on?'” he says. “Then introduce procedures to help regain and maintain momentum.”

3. Set up online games

Connecting over games can serve as a bonding session or a way to blow off steam. Fox says he’s heard of a small company that has fun during lunch on Fridays.

“The managing director holds a company quiz and donates some prize money,” he says. “Everyone joins the videoconference. This helps to maintain the community spirit. It also generates its own topics for small talk for the following week, such as ‘What did you think of the quiz?’ ‘What are you going to spend your prize money on?'”

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Teamwork hosts online trivia games, and Quicken Loans holds a daily “hour of fun” where team members have the opportunity to virtually play games with senior leadership team during the workday.

“What better way to take a break than by playing a Pictionary-style game with your CEO,” says Mike Malloy, chief people officer.

4. Give house tours

Working remotely also gives employees an opportunity to welcome coworkers into their homes. At Quicken Loans, meetings start with team members hosting their own version of MTV Cribs, says Malloy, giving virtual tours of their homes-turned-offices. Others have invited their kids or pets to join them on a video chat with their team.

“Virtual home tours, introductions to kids and pets, or even a glimpse into a hobby have all been fun ways for our team members to share the why behind all their hard work,” says Malloy.

And Teamwork employees have a specific work-from-home channel on its communication platform where employees are encouraged to post pictures of their homes, family, and pets.

“We’ve had hundreds of pictures of all sorts of random, crazy, working environments all around the world,” says Coppinger. “These innovative ways to keep our work community socially connected are a great reminder that we all have a strong support system behind us, regardless of whether we are confined to the physical office or not.”

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It’s more important than ever to keep the casual chats going. “Right now, we are at a very critical point in time in terms of promoting company culture with social distancing in place,” says Coppinger. “Anxiety and depression are likely to spike as the pandemic continues, which trickles into work life and can cause a negative impact on team morale, as employees feel increasingly detached from colleagues and peers.” This can be especially painful for employees who are normally office-based, where culture and socialization happen without much effort.

“A good rule of thumb is to ensure that in-person office traditions are migrated into the team’s remote ecosystem.”

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